My views on “The Elephant, the Tiger & the Cellphone” by Shashi Tharoor

The name of the book would invoke interest in anyone. The author’s fame, although not yet as much as a novelist, is pervasive. A man rooted in Kerala, born in London, who studied in Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi, earned a Ph.D at the young age of 22 and almost made it to the top of the United Nations as its revered Secretary General had finally decided to join the swampy grounds of Indian politics. This achiever, I felt, wanted to serve India in a way most NRIs would dare not venture into but would be secretly proud of. And thus, I had decided to order the book. (Special thanks to a friend who often sang high praises for this man during our college days, whose words I got reminded of, every time I heard Tharoor in news).
The book turned out to be an engaging read. That he is a very eloquent writer he made it clear from the beginning- words flowed smoothly. If I had to point out two reasons why you should read it, they would be:
1. It is a collection of essays and you can choose to skip one if you don’t find it interesting and move on to the next (no, I didn’t do that) without missing the link.
2. It is about India- something all Indians can relate to. However, Tharoor dedicated it to his wife Christa “in the hope of introducing her to my India” and hence also acts as a guide for all non-Indians who wish to sail through the history of a land of snake-charmers, brilliant mathematicians and the greatest democracy in the world.
In his book, Shashi is able to portray a very true picture of India, thanks to his access to the most ‘untouched’ of the bureaucrats both inside and outside the geographical boundaries of the nation to the ones considered “untouchables” in this country.
Tharoor takes up the subject of the tale of an extraordinary transformation of an equally extraordinary nation that has been able to evoke deference from rest of the world, both secretly and candidly, for a wide spectrum of reasons. He clearly believes in the importance of Indian middle class in this transformation. Tharoor outlines the evils that made India what he calls “a highly developed one in an advanced state of decay”. Of course, there is no denying the fact that India once boasted of the best mathematicians, scientists, philosophers and poets. Besides, this has been the land of religious toleration (He cites the example of the Jews who after facing the wrath of all nations found shelter in Kerala). The author points out how we have let our rich heritage go down the drain over time.
Of the current social evils, he has been vehemently vocal about the politics over Hindutva by a vengeance-seeking group of vandals who have no understanding of arguably the most tolerant religion in the world. Tharoor laments, among several others, the rising challenge of illiteracy, the graph that challenges to beat China in terms of population, the falling trend in wearing saris (taking into account the difficulties it poses), the increasing belief in superstitions amongst the “educated” and the increasing re-naming of cities, roads and railway stations!
Tharoor is also proud of the fact that India has a Bangalore (ah, Bengalooru), that cellphones are selling like hot cakes in India, that it still produces brilliant minds that rule the Silicon Valley half a world away and how we all are minorities in this country (a very interesting conclusion he has repeatedly harped upon) with more differences than similarities and still manage to stay together in harmony.
Besides, Tharoor writes about the ever-increasing craze over a game he is equally mad about- cricket. And of course, he mentions the Bollywood heroes who are worshipped not just in India. He writes about Ajanta caves, the legacy of St. Stephen’s College, Sunil Gavaskar, the attitude of Indians towards NRIs and the mushrooming of call-centers with equal ease.
He turns out to be a great fan of Gandhiji, equally of Nehru, not as much of Indira and somewhat of ‘Congress’. But he also points out the flaws with each of them. He is indebted to the individuals that made India India: from Gandhi to Tagore, from a not-so-known nun Mariam Thresia to the genius Ramanujan, from the savant Amartya Sen to his beloved family.
A polymath himself, Shashi has indeed done a wonderful job, his wide knowledge about the country he considers his despite not having lived here for quite some years, exuding all over the place in his book. Of course, Shashi hasn’t listed the solutions to all the evils marring the face of this nation but has indeed done a brilliant research on the root-cause analysis of several of them. The best thing about him is- you can’t research and write things you don’t care about- so, his concerns are genuine, unlike most other politicians of our age. Cheers to his vision of India!

PS: To find out the reason behind the title of the book, read it.

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